There is no reason that South Australia can’t enjoy the benefits of offshore exploration and development in harmony with its globally renowned marine environment.
For decades, safe and sustainable exploration has been conducted by the oil and gas industry in Australian waters. Over 3,800 wells are currently drilled offshore in Australian waters, with more than 90 wells drilled offshore, yearly.
If approved, exploration and development will take place 400km off the coast. Exploration environmental plans will only be accepted if companies can demonstrate to the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) that the environmental risks and impacts have been reduced to a level that is ‘as low as reasonably practicable’.
NOPSEMA requires that operators adhere to the highest standards of environmental management, safety management, and community consultation. If NOPSEMA does not grant approval, no wells will be drilled.
From Bass Strait, to operations offshore Western Australia and the Northern Territory to the 13 wells already drilled in the waters of the Great Australian Bight, the oil and gas industry stand by a strong track record operating in Australian conditions under Australian regulations.
Regulation and Risks
There are risks associated with oil and gas exploration, and they required careful management.
The Commonwealth, States and the South Australian Governments and the Australian oil and gas industry take a proactive and comprehensive approach to risk management.
Since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, global, local and industry systematic reviews of regulation have strengthened the legal framework and in 2011, a new beefed-up Australian regulator was created; the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA).
The creation of NOPSEMA as the independent regulator, equipped with adequate powers and responsibility has been a vital reform. NOPSEMA has expanded functions including occupational health and safety; structural integrity of facilities; wells and well related equipment; environmental management and regulation of day-to-day petroleum operations.
The industry funded Australian Marine Oil Spill Centre (AMOSC) has reviewed its preparedness and response equipment and strategies. AMOSC has significantly increased its capacity to deal with an offshore spill – both in terms of staffing and equipment.
This has included the development and purchase of a Subsea First Response Toolkit (SFRT), which allows for rapid intervention to prepare the well head and the immediate surrounding seabed area so that containment can be deployed rapidly.
Based in Perth, the SFRT provides specialised equipment in Australia for immediate use in the event of an incident. Australia’s SFRT is one of just five worldwide.
Cutting edge containment equipment called ‘capping stacks’ have also been and developed to enable even the largest oil spills to be contained. A capping stack is a large well closure device that connects to the top of the blowout preventer (BOP) and is capable of sealing off a well. It is only used in the highly unlikely situation where a loss of well control includes both a surface blowout and failure of the BOP.
Once connected to the BOP, the capping stack’s valves can be closed to slowly reduce the flow until the well is closed off completely. Capping stacks are engineered to withstand the high pressure of a flowing well and can therefore weigh up to 100 tons.
Additionally, drilling contractors are now required to have five-yearly safety critical inspection and maintenance of their BOP equipment aligned with the new standard known as API STD 53. NOPSEMA assesses operator compliance with the planned inspection and maintenance requirements. Non-compliance to maintain emergency equipment results in enforcement action.
The industry has also worked with the international oil and gas industry to ensure Australia has access to the world’s best well incident prevention and response capability. The International Oil and Gas Producers Association’s Global Industry Response Group has established a Subsea Well Response Project, which has included the purchase and placement of a Well Capping System in Singapore.
With new industry best-practice and stringent regulation and oversight, offshore drilling has never been safer.
Addressing Common Concerns
Claims of environmental harm from offshore oil and gas activity do not consider decades of safe, sustainable exploration and development in Australian waters. That record reflects a commitment to managing risks and putting environmental outcomes ahead of commercial gain.
There are risks that need to be managed, and the industries record reflects a commitment to doing exactly that.
- The oil and gas industry have a long history of operating alongside fishing and tourism industries, including in Bass Strait in southern Australia, offshore Western Australia, in the North Sea, offshore Norway and Scotland, and many other areas.
- Fisheries in regions that host oil and gas activities continue to be some of the most productive in Australia.
- Likewise, there is no evidence of whales being harmed. In fact, whale populations are increasing significantly, including in areas with long-standing oil and gas operations.
- The conditions and challenges in the Great Australian Bight are no different to other many other areas where the offshore oil and gas industry has operated safely around the world.
- There is a rigorous regulatory system in place that requires both robust environmental plans and effective consultation with other industries and the community. The regulator will not approve plans that don’t meet those standards.